At 80, Paul McCartney Shows Us How to Age Gracefully
Writer Jon Friedman
Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, Paul McCartney is still "The Cute Beatle" — and so much more.
The nickname-happy media gave McCartney that label around the time that "A Hard Day's Night" came out, at the dawn of worldwide Beatlemania in 1964. McCartney has allowed himself to look his age with great dignity. He lets his generous amount of gray hair shine through. There may now be a bit of a puddle around his mid-section — not that most guys wouldn't love to trade physiques with him — but big deal. What McCartney radiates will always allow him to look on the sunny side.
Do you want to know a secret? Paul McCartney acts his age. Happily!
Yes, a cynic would say dismissively, "Of course, he always looks happy. He's worth a billion dollars!" As the Beatles once sang, on "She's Leaving Home," "fun is the one thing that money can't buy."
"But I think in the end, you do what I do, what most people do: just remember the great stuff."
McCartney remains philosophical. Remember the sentiment that he expressed on the cover of his first solo album, "McCartney," in 1970, which contained a photograph of a spilled bowl of cherries: Life is not always a bowl of cherries.
Since those heady days, the man who went on to give us "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," "Penny Lane," "Hey Jude," and "Let It Be," not to mention a slew of hits as a solo recording artist, has had to cope with his share of setbacks, heartbreaks and losses.
Somehow, though, like a fine watch, he keeps right on ticking. Like a gutsy prize fighter, he rises off the canvas. How does McCartney stay so productive and upbeat? And what lessons can we mere mortals learn from his shining example?
McCartney has exhibited his hopeful nature in public. During an interview he did on Howard Stern's radio show on Jan. 14, 2009, Stern asked him how he had been coping with the 2001 death of band mate George Harrison and McCartney answered philosophically.
"How are you doing with everyone dying? Your mom and dad. I've lost both my parents. I lost John (Lennon), lost George, lost (first wife) Linda. It's very tough. You want them back. You want them back all the time. But I think in the end, you do what I do, what most people do: just remember the great stuff."
Even beyond McCartney's grieving, he had his mind on coping with the state of the world, which was in a worrisome place at the time of the conversation with Stern. The global economy had tanked, and our morale was low.
Stern: "Are you depressed by the world's situation now?"
McCartney: "I'm not exactly happy about it. But I'm an optimist. You've been around a little while, you've seen stuff. You've seen Vietnam. You've seen Nixon. 9/11."
McCartney has always been an optimist — an attitude and life philosophy that has served him well. Does he think the glass is half-full? Just look at his songwriting credits.
As a songwriter in the Beatles, he was the one who sang "it's getting better all the time" even as his songwriting partner, John Lennon, answered with a smirk in the same song, "It couldn't get much worse".
McCartney sang, "We can work it out."
When the Beatles were in the process of breaking apart and McCartney was distressed, he solved his existential crises by counseling, "Let it be."
He urged us to "Take a sad song and make it better."
He believes in yesterday.
You say goodbye. Paul McCartney says hello.
The Long and Winding Road
The Beatles broke up in 1970, ending the reign of what their music publisher Dick James once called "the perfect entertainment machine." After privately despairing the termination of his brilliant collaboration with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, McCartney put the pieces together and struck out on his own — and, at first, anyway, strike out he did.
Music critics savagely panned his first few post-Beatles albums. On a 1971 song called "How Do You Sleep?" Lennon dismissed McCartney's new music as "Muzak to my ears." Coming from Lennon, McCartney's boyhood his idol and ex-partner, those unusually harsh words especially stung.
McCartney released the worldwide hit "Band on the Run" in 1973 and got back on his feet, creatively. But in 1998, Linda, his beloved wife of 29 years, died of breast cancer, the same disease that had claimed his mother, Mary, when Paul was 14 years old.
A second marriage in 2003 to British activist Heather Mills, 26 years his junior, proved explosive fodder for worldwide tabloids and ended after only five years. Happily, he and his third wife, Nancy Shevell, a New York business executive, continue to go strong after a decade.
As he navigates his own long and winding road, Sir Paul — born James Paul McCartney to a working-class family in Liverpool, England during the height of World War II — has personified a remarkable capacity for aging gracefully.
He has been utterly unselfconscious about embracing — even celebrating — his advancing years. When you remember that McCartney remains one of the world's most photographed and identifiable people, this disdain for looking falsely youthful makes him a wonderful role model.
A Day in the Life
McCartney has sported a head of natural-looking gray hair for so long that it seems hard to think of him in his Beatle days. He is comfortable looking his age and not losing any sleep about whether he will keep up with his fellow rock stars, who seem willing to strike a deal with the devil just to look young again.
But McCartney's hair color is merely a cosmetic decision. Far more crucially, he has kept up a demanding workload. Proclaimed in the media to be a billionaire, McCartney clearly doesn't make new music or go on tour or stay in the public eye for the money.
Proclaimed in the media to be a billionaire, McCartney clearly doesn't make new music or go on tour or stay in the public eye for the money.
Despite any aches and pains that come naturally in one's twilight, Paul McCartney has never lost his love for the work he does so well.
I've never met McCartney. But I have gained a sort of understanding about the rock and roll mentality and aging. I wrote a book about McCartney admirer and peer, Bob Dylan, in 2012 called "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention."
In the course of my research, I interviewed many people who were or continue to be close to Dylan. I asked a family member, "Why does he still tour so much?" This is the same point you could raise to McCartney, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who as well as the likes of Elton John, not to mention Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones — all men who have been making music for more than five decades and have happily stayed prolific over the years.
When I asked the Dylan insider that key question, he nodded thoughtfully, as if underscoring the public's curiosity to learn the holy grail of how a rock star ages.
He said: "He likes to work. Touring helps him stay in good physical shape. He gets to travel around the world and see old friends. He loves singing the songs he wrote, which still mean so much to him." At that point, my interview subject smiled and added: "And yeah, he likes the money."
Paul McCartney, it appears, likes it all. He enjoys reminiscing in interviews. You'd never catch him in a "Sunset Boulevard" kind of weakness, when he yearned for the good old days. He respects what he has accomplished but won't allow himself to get stuck in the past.
While the world was bemoaning life during the global pandemic, McCartney got back to work. He couldn't tour, of course. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and recorded an album of new songs.
Nothing seems to keep Paul McCartney down for long. His life philosophies enable him to turn the page time after time. He knows his place in the world. We should all be so lucky to have this gift of self-awareness.
Yes, he once sang a song called "I'm Down." But he also sang, "It really doesn't matter if I'm wrong — I'm right. Where I belong, I'm right."
Jon Friedman, the author of the ebook "Goo Goo Ga Joob: Why I Am the Walrus is the Beatles’ Greatest Song" (2014, Miniver Press), will be teaching The Beatles: Music and Legacy in the 2022 spring semester at Stony Brook University.